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The latest on Russia-Ukraine diplomacy

ELISSA NADWORNY, HOST:

Russia accuses the U.S. of whipping up hysteria by talking about a possible invasion of Ukraine. Today, Secretary of State Antony Blinken says Russia could clear all this up by telling the world it won't.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANTONY BLINKEN: State it clearly. State it plainly to the world. And then demonstrate it by sending your troops, your tanks, your planes back to their barracks and hangars and sending your diplomats to the negotiating table.

NADWORNY: Secretary Blinken issued that public challenge in the U.N. Security Council chambers today. He flew to New York at the last minute before heading to Germany for a security conference where Ukraine is also likely to be a big topic.

NPR's Michele Kelemen joins us now to talk about the state of play of diplomacy. Hi, Michele.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Hi there, Elissa.

NADWORNY: Why was the Security Council meeting so important that Blinken changed his plans?

KELEMEN: Well, you know, the Russians have the rotating presidency of the council right now, and they were the ones who called this meeting to put pressure on Ukraine to resolve the conflict in the Donbas in the east. Ukraine signed a deal back in 2014 to give two regions now run by Russian proxies more autonomy. And Russia says, you know, Ukraine is not implementing that deal.

And, by the way, there was a flare-up with some shelling today, another reminder that this is an ongoing conflict. U.S. officials were worried that the Russians were going to use the Security Council meeting to spread disinformation about what's happening in Donbas in order to create a pretext to launch a military action. Secretary Blinken even listed some of the possibilities to look out for. Take a listen to what he had to say.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BLINKEN: The invented discovery of a mass grave, a staged drone strike against civilians or a fake - even a real - attack using chemical weapons. Russia may describe this event as ethnic cleansing or a genocide.

NADWORNY: Wow. A real chemical weapon attack, genocide - did Russia respond to any of this?

KELEMEN: Yeah. I mean, Russia's deputy foreign minister, who was there, called Blinken's remarks regrettable and dangerous. He said these allegations only bring more tension. But, you know, Russian President Vladimir Putin has already used that word, genocide, when talking about the Donbas.

And remember that Russia has been handing out Russian passports to Ukrainians living in those separatist regions. So Putin could try to justify an invasion, even if a limited one, by saying he needs to protect Russian citizens there. The U.S. seems to be trying to take away some of these possible excuses by talking about all of this very publicly.

NADWORNY: So that's the public debate. What kind of behind-the-scenes diplomacy is going on?

KELEMEN: Well, the U.S. and Russia have been exchanging written proposals for negotiations on security in Europe. The U.S. has offered talks with Russia on things like arms control and transparency and military exercises. But Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Vershinin said that's not enough. Here he was speaking today outside the Security Council chambers.

SERGEY VERSHININ: We got the answers from NATO and from U.S., the answers that do not satisfy our concerns. But at the same time, we said that we are ready for serious discussions and serious dialogue, once more, I repeat, not an imitation of dialogue.

KELEMEN: Not an imitation of dialogue. You know, Russia wants, among other things, legally binding guarantees that Ukraine will never become part of NATO. They have other demands that they repeated in a written response that was delivered to the U.S. ambassador in Moscow today.

NADWORNY: So speaking of that embassy in Moscow, there's one less U.S. diplomat there today. Can you tell me about that?

KELEMEN: Yeah. Russia expelled the deputy chief of mission. That's the second most senior official at the embassy, Bart Gorman. The State Department says he left last week, and they called Russia's action provoked. But it seems to be part of a long-running dispute between the two countries over embassy staffing and one that's likely going to continue.

NADWORNY: Yeah. That's NPR's Michele Kelemen. Thanks.

KELEMEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.